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LATIN AMERICA

As inflation soars, patience wears thin in Buenos Aires slums

A trip to a neighborhood badly hit by the crisis where residents voted for Macri and his promise of zero poverty

There is little meat on display at shantytown grocery stores because consumption has dropped.
There is little meat on display at shantytown grocery stores because consumption has dropped.

Rodrigo Bueno, a shantytown on Argentina’s Rio de la Plata, does not have running water, sewer systems or paved streets. Every path here is a dirt road with crossing cables overhead, dilapidated houses hunched together, and palpable poverty everywhere.

Some trucks bring water and others take away the waste that fills the septic tanks. But, standing in the neighborhood’s new small soccer field, one can see the imposing towers of Puerto Madero, the Buenos Aires neighborhood where businessmen, politicians, lawyers and prosecutors like the late Alberto Nisman live. Nisman died in one of those buildings that stand just 200 meters away from the heart of this misery.

“Some live in isolation in those soundproof towers,” says Father Alejandro, who serves in parishes in both Puerto Madero and in Rodrigo Bueno, and sees both worlds every day.

Poverty gets even tougher when prices and unemployment rise.
Poverty gets even tougher when prices and unemployment rise.

“They don’t want to find out what’s happening around them,” he adds. “It’s very tempting. They go straight from the car to their apartment, work or the gym. Others don’t, though. They volunteer and some even go to the shantytowns to help.”

From the towers, one can hardly make out the slums: the view has been blocked with a terrace and some reeds.

Runaway inflation is destroying the family budget after four years of economic standstill. The recession has hit poor neighborhoods the hardest, even though unemployment has not skyrocketed yet as it did in Europe. Public works projects were put on hold after the November elections, and most of the men from the 1,100 households in Rodrigo Bueno work in construction.

“There is still work to be found, but it’s no longer legal, just informal, under the table. And there are no paritarias [collective bargaining agreements] and no way to negotiate. You take what they give you and they take advantage,” says Luis, a local union leader who has been living in Rodrigo Bueno for 20 years.

The butcher's shop is deserted in the afternoons.
The butcher's shop is deserted in the afternoons.

The government only admits to a 1.7% decline in construction but unofficial records say 60,000 jobs have been lost. Households that hire women as domestic employees have cut their hours because they cannot afford them anymore. Even though the new president, Mauricio Macri, has maintained and even improved government benefits, a 30% inflation rate affects everyone.

Priests and non-profits who work in the slums are the first to see the impact of this economic slowdown.

“People hang on because of solidarity, but that only lasts so long. The adjustment is very difficult,” says Father Alejandro.

Rodrigo Bueno families have asked for a free snack program for the kids. In other slums, such as 1-11-14 in the neighborhood of Bajo Flores, which is home to 30,000 people, there are four snack programs. Residents are asking for two more.

The luxury of Puerto Madero stands out in the background against the misery of Rodrigo Bueno.
The luxury of Puerto Madero stands out in the background against the misery of Rodrigo Bueno.

Contrary to how it may seem, Macri received many votes from these areas. His message of “zero poverty” and “bring an end to drug trafficking” made a deep impression. But after four months, some people are getting impatient.

“I voted for Macri but this is not going well. Before, there used to be roast meat everywhere, and now we only eat meat once a week,” says Diana. They recognize that the crisis hit before the new administration took office, but it is getting worse.

Diana is holding a bag that contains a red onion, spring onions and a few eggs. She has been living in Rodrigo Bueno for eight years. “My husband is a messenger and earns 10,000 pesos ($666) but it’s not enough. The worst thing is that now I can’t send money to Peru to help my family.”

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“They now come with small bills,” says Zaida, who works at a grocery store in the neighborhood. “They buy less meat and more vegetables. Chicken is also expensive.” Shoppers no longer ask to buy on credit. “They try to restrain themselves because they don’t know if they’ll be able to pay me in a week.”

Inflation has skyrocketed in these poor areas. Sometimes it’s more expensive to buy here than elsewhere. “I offer one kilo of meat for 120 pesos and I still don’t make anything. People eat less but they’re still hanging on. The priority here is to eat, not like in Belgrano [a wealthy neighborhood] where they think about buying brand new cars,” says Miguel, the butcher.

“Many don’t go to the store regularly anymore. They prefer to catch a sale at the supermarkets. Milk and yogurts are very expensive and they don’t buy a lot of meat. The carton of milk that was 11 pesos is now 16,” says Luisa Chávez, a resident of another shantytown, Fraga, where heat used to cost 70 pesos a month only half a year ago. Now it costs 120 pesos.

“It’s like a drizzle: one day there aren’t any more cakes left, and you see the kids throw themselves on the food. That’s how it started in 2001. Soon we’ll see soup kitchens and that will mean it has started to rain,” Luis says. Everyone he runs into greets him and asks him for help.

The Argentinean government says things will improve soon. The International Monetary Fund says Argentina will grow again in 2017. But, here in Rodrigo Bueno, patience is running out.

English version by Dyane Jean Françios

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